Zatoichi reminded me of Twin Peaks. Where David Lynch uses the iconic FBI agent as the entrance point into his off-kilter Pacific Northwest, Takeshi Kitano uses the iconic figure of Zatoichi as the entrance point into bushido. Now, obviously Kitano isn’t Lynch — there are no midgets — but there are distinct similarities in the precedence Kitano gives metaphor over reality. Does it make sense for a group of peasants to dance in the middle of a long shot? Does it matter, if the metaphor is there?
Zatoichi is a chambara movie in the same way that Twin Peaks is an FBI series. Kitano’s interested in the people and the tragedies; the swordplay is frequent, but it’s not the flashy lengthy battles one might expect. It’s punctuation that (sometimes) lessens the tension built up by the tight unspoken relationships between the characters.
Hm; come to think of it, the tension is also built up by the score, which is nothing short of incredible. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a movie in which the score was so perfectly integrated into and essential to the movie. I mentioned the peasants dancing; that’s one example, but even when there’s not something whimsically musical going on, the sound design is immaculate.
The other thing I found really striking — well, besides Kitano’s screen presence, which is always impressive — was the texture of the movie. The use of flashbacks is precise and skilled. There’s one scene, another dance scene, in which past is intercut with present to make a certain point about how the past affects the now. Just when you don’t want to see another intercut, just when it’s getting gimmicky, Kitano provides a reaction shot and resets the entire scene. Masterfully done.
There’s also some really spiffy stuff going on with masks and who wears them and who (if anyone) does not. Consider that Zatoichi, in his guise as a masseuse, is in effect wearing a mask. So are an awful lot of other characters. It struck me that the most noble character, or at least the the most honest character, is Gennosuke Hattori the ronin. (Parenthetically, he plays the lead in Last Life in the Universe, which I’m getting more and more excited about every day.) He’s certainly one of only a handful of characters who doesn’t hide behind something.
This is just opening wide (in the arthouse sense of the word) in the US. If you’re patient and you don’t mind giving a movie room to breathe, take the time to see it.